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Israel at war: The fire is still burning

When survivors of a brush with mortality recite the thanksgiving prayer, they are bolstered by the community and its response (Tzav)
Supernova party survivors in a group therapy session at the Secret Forest retreat center in Cyprus, in a post-October 7, 2023 undated photo. (courtesy)
Supernova party survivors in a group therapy session at the Secret Forest retreat center in Cyprus, in a post-October 7, 2023 undated photo. (courtesy)

Last week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, addressed the sacrifices brought by the people. This week’s portion, Tzav, addresses the role the priests played in making these sacrifices. Yet lay people did more than bring offerings. Both the historian Josephus and the Talmud tell us that during the time of the Second Temple, there was a designated day when everyone brought wood for the altar so that all could participate in ensuring that the esh tamid, the perpetual fire, would have sufficient fuel. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, thought that this fire is mirrored spiritually in the heart of every Jew.

A new offering is also described: the zevach al-todah, or thanksgiving offering. After giving the priests a share, this offering was eaten with family and friends. Our sages tell us that this offering was required from those who survived dangerous circumstances such as a potentially hazardous journey, dangerous imprisonment, childbirth, or a serious illness. The category of hazardous journey was understood to include a variety of hazardous circumstances. Certainly, the survivors of the October 7th massacre would be included. So too would those held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, under the category of dangerous imprisonment.

We know from the accounts of released hostages that the conditions of imprisonment are dangerous: food, medicines, and treatment for injuries withheld or inadequate, as well as beatings and sexual assault. Added to this is the danger of the war raging around them. Some of the hostages have died or been killed in captivity.

Though we no longer have a Temple at which sacrifices are offered, there are parallels. In ancient days, priests had a larger role and more responsibility than the general populace. Yet everyone participated according to their means. Even the poorest could bring a meal sacrifice. All could bring wood for the altar. Everyone had a stake in an important collective enterprise.

Today, some soldiers face danger going into combat. Other soldiers perform less dangerous, but no less necessary, supportive roles, such as logistics. Civilians heal the injured, cook food for the soldiers, house displaced internal refugees, pick crops, or donate money, goods, and time. Jews from abroad have come to Israel to help in a myriad of ways. The whole House of Israel has come together, in ways great and small, each giving what he or she can, in an endeavor of the greatest importance. The esh tamid is still burning in Jewish hearts.

We no longer offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. Today, people who have survived a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation, recite the Birkat HaGomel or “Blessing of the One Who Bestows,” before the congregation during the Torah service. It is a call-and-response prayer, with the congregation participating along with the survivor. The survivor says:

“Blessed are you, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, the bestower on the undeserving of goodness, who has bestowed on me everything good.”

And the congregation answers:

“Amen. May the one who bestowed on you everything good [continue to] reward you with everything good.”

As the thanksgiving offering was shared with the community in Temple times, so today this prayer of gratitude is shared, with the community acknowledging the survivor’s brush with mortality and the Source of a good outcome.

Ellen Frankel, CEO of the Jewish Publication Society, says the Birkat HaGomel can have an added function: lessening the burden of survivor guilt. It is common to experience guilt after surviving a dangerous situation that others did not. Many of the survivors of the October 7th massacre and released hostages have expressed such feelings, wondering what they could have done differently to save a friend or family member, why they deserved to live while others died. Many feel they should not eat or enjoy any pleasures while others are in captivity or no longer alive. Frankel posits that hearing the community recite back the prayer confirms that one is, indeed, worthy of the blessing of having survived and deserves good things.

In Temple days, the thanksgiving offering included 40 loaves of bread, 30 unleavened and 10 leavened. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained that the leavened loaves represented growth and freedom from constricting danger.

And while other sacrifices had to be consumed in two days and an intervening night, the thanksgiving sacrifice had to be consumed in just a day and a night. Why was there less time to eat more food? Seforno comments that this encouraged the offeror to invite many to partake of the feast. Thanksgiving was to be shared, and gratitude proclaimed, to and with as many people as possible.

Our sages teach that when Mashiach comes, there will no longer need to be offerings of atonement, for people will no longer sin. But thanksgiving offerings will remain, because of the supreme importance of gratitude, and because we will be so grateful when the world is perfected.

May the unity of all Israel, each giving what he or she can and feeding a perpetual fire in each other’s hearts, continue. May all the survivors and hostages be freed from captivity of body, mind, and spirit, giving us all cause for thanksgiving. May we find reason to be grateful even in times of adversity, turning captivity to freedom and disaster to growth, and sharing our thanksgiving with each other. And may that longed-for age of perfect peace and wholeness, where all brokenness and sorrow are transformed to wholeness and joy, come speedily in our days, amen.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can be found at https://kosherkitty.wordpress.com/about/ and @KosherKitty1.
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